Archive for Phyllis Allen

Vagabondage and Discipline

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 15, 2021 by dcairns

David Robinson regards THE VAGABOND as a major step forward for Chaplin, and I guess he’s right. The title implies a development from THE TRAMP, and it looks forward to THE KID, A WOMAN OF PARIS, and others.

Robinson also says that Chaplin was virtually the last to realize how famous he’d become, but the opening shot of this one — the Tramp identified by his boots and walk alone — shows that he was at least somewhat aware of how iconic his costume and stance had become. Same with introducing himself from the rear in THE FLOORWALKER, but this is altogether more stylish.

The opening sequence is a bit of standalone knockabout, the kind of thing we see Chaplin doing more of in his feature films. Introduce the Little Fellow, get some big laughs, then start the story. Charlie is a busker — Chaplin played the violin for real, and would do so again in LIMELIGHT. At the orphanage, Chaplin had been beaten for being left-handed and as a result had become ambidextrous, but he played the violin left-handed and had the instrument strung accordingly, “with the bass-bar and sounding post reversed.”

When his friend Jascha Heifetz picked up Chaplin’s violin, he couldn’t play it. Chaplin demonstrated: ““You see! I am made inside out and upside down. When I turn my back on you on the screen you are looking at something as expressive as a face.”

Charlie plays outside a bar, but a noisy oompah band (played by all the firemen from THE FIREMAN) impress the customers. When he goes in to collect donations, he’s mistaken for a member of the band. Then the band send someone in and a fight breaks out. Oh, and here’s Leo White in his longest beard yet, playing a Jewish customer tempted by the ham. A bit of very mild Jewish humour to prepare us for the more dubious racial stereotyping later.

The set built for this sequence is very interesting — the long bar constructed as both interior and exterior, enabling a different kind of running battle. Chaplin’s loose approach to story — building it from rehearsal/improvisation — suggests he may have been hoping this sequence would lead organically into a larger story.

Instead, his next scene abruptly relocates Charlie to the countryside. Edna is “the gypsy drudge,” horribly mistreated by a crone — Leo White in drag! — and the gypsy chieftain, Eric Campbell in a straight villain role. The brutal whippings Edna is receiving suggest it’s miraculous she’s reached adulthood.

Charlie happens along and tries to cheer Edna up. His initial motivation seems to be profit, though why (a) he’d expect the ragged and miserable Edna to have money and (b) why he thinks he can impress the stereotyped Romany camp with his fiddling — coals to Newcastle, surely? — are moot points.

Chaplin, interestingly, was probably part Roma himself. Which doesn’t make his using the racist trope of “gypsies abducting babies” any better. He’s thoughlessly following a familiar plotline, as previously exploited in D.W. Griffith’s first short, THE ADVENTURE OF DOLLIE. Everybody seems to have believed travelling people routinely stole kids, or at least they found it a perfectly acceptable premise for a story, whether they believed it or not. Sigh.

Oh, and Chaplin has already introduced this theme with a short scene showing the very rich mother (palatial home — two women knitting). The cut from mother looking at little girl photo to Edna makes it all but explicit what the connection is, so the plot twist doesn’t come as a deus ex machina later.

THE VAGABOND has smoothed over the awkward changes in tone that Walter Kerr found so jarring and unresolved in THE TRAMP, though it’s still a little disconcerting to have Charlie walk into this scene of horror. Only when he starts to fight back against Eric and the rest of his gang do these tensions flow together into a coherent line of action. It’s very exciting when they do. But it only works if you can root for Charlie and forget about the racist assumptions underlying the scene.

Charlie up a tree stealth-bonking the Romany scoundrels on the nut, one after the other, until they’re all neatly laid out unconscious, is thrilling and funny. When he nudges one prone foe off the bridge, presumably into a watery grave, it seems to be an act performed in a spirit of neatness. This is what we mean by “pre-Holocaust comedy.”

Charlie escapes with Edna in a stolen caravan, an excitingly staged mini-chase. I think the comic-dramatic exciting chase, where you root for the hero against the villain(s), is fairly new to Chaplin. There’s some of it in THE TRAMP.

There follows a chaste idyll, the first of many in Chaplin’s films. In fact, Charlie washing Edna’s face is directly echoed in his fatherly ministrations to Jackie Coogan in THE KID — and it’s more appropriate there, too. This idyll is arguably TOO idyllic — it’s interspersed with Edna meeting The Painter (Lloyd Bacon, who played her father in the previous short), an idyll within an idyll. The painter isn’t very interesting, and it’s hard to see why Edna is so impressed with him. I mean, sure he’s cultured, but how good is he at killing gypsies?

The painting complete, it is shown — rather obviously a glazed photograph — in an art gallery, in Chaplin’s first really successful camera move, an elegant pull-back. And the rich lady, setting aside her knitting for a day out, spots the painting, and she and the painter ride out to the country so Edna can be retrieved.

The painter’s feelings aren’t much gone into. Having painted Edna as “the Living Shamrock” (owing to the oddly configured birthmark her mother will recognise) he would seem to have lost all interest in her, but now he’s excited again. Probably because Edna turns out to be posh, with a rich mother who lives in a mansion, wears elegant robes, and eats regularly. I’d suspect the painter of mercenary motives if he wasn’t so obviously a plot function with an easel.

Charlie is left alone. He tries kicking his heels to restore his spirits — it worked in THE TRAMP — but he is inconsolable. But, as she drives away in her mother’s limo, Edna has second thoughts. It’s a very nice shot, done in a real automobile, because we can see both Edna’s dawning romantic yearning, and the road stretching away through the rear window, showing the distance between the lovers inexorably lengthening.

But the car turns round, picks up Charlie, and the film ends with the open road but nobody on it. One might worry a little about the abandoned horse. One is more likely to wonder about the characters’ future, about how Charlie and the respectable folks are going to get along. It’s a question begged, but ultimately refused, by the endings of THE KID and CITY LIGHTS, which stop just before the questions become pressing.

Chaplin apparently considered other endings, including a gag finish where he’d try to drown himself, get hauled into a row boat by a passing woman, then throw himself back in when he sees she’s the unglamorous Phyllis Allen. I think we can all be grateful he decided against that one. But it leaves THE VAGABOND as an odd story that starts totally comical and ends totally serious, with little in the way of comedy in its last ten minutes. But it works — and one imagines this gave Chaplin additional confidence. However, his NEXT film refuses all sentiment, dispenses with the supporting cast, and pretty much leaves out the Little Fellow…

Auld Acquaintance

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2021 by dcairns

One last jaunt into Echo Lake Park, AKA the violently inclined idiot’s Forest of Arden.

Charlie is married to Phyllis Allen, Keystone’s own Marie-Dressler-Alike. It’s a seaside postcard marriage, the big, domineering woman and the henpecked little man. Phyllis has the sniffles, and Charlie, rather than being sympathetic, is mocking her for our benefit: he does a trombone mime, and pretends to blow his nose on her knitting.

Wikipedia informs us that the character names this time are Mr. and Mrs. Sniffels — possibly a Sydney Chaplin interpolation, as he rewrote the text and recut the action in much of his brother’s Keystone output at a later date.

Meanwhile (there are several meanwhiles in this) MABEL, we are told, ADMIRES HER HUSBAND AMBROSE. An extraordinary statement. Ambrose, of course, is Mack Swain, and there’s admittedly plenty of him to admire. Wires have not become crossed yet, but the mere introduction of wiring to a Keystone short promises that this will happen. 1914 audiences would be chuckling in anticipation.

A motor car enters frame. Mack & Mabel are enchanted by the gasoline-driven chariot. Their faces light up with religious awe. OK, so Chaplin needed to introduce an auto, and had to find a way to make it interesting (ignoring Sidney Pollack’s dictum, for the good reason that it hadn’t yet been formulated — Pollack wouldn’t be born for twenty years yet — “Let the boring crap BE boring crap”) so he has his lovers ooh and ahh at the mundane jalopy as if it were Hitler flying in at the start of TRIUMPH OF THE WILL. Instead, its someone called Joe Bordeaux and his crate promptly breaks down. Ambrose gets distracted trying to help, and Mabel is left alone…

A meting between Charlie and Mabel is now anticipated, but Chaplin pulls a fast one, instead he introduces a whole new character, “Mary, the flirt” per Wikipedia, played by the fetching Cecile Arnold. On seeing her, Charlie/Mr. Sniffels immediately distances himself from his slumbering spouse. Adultery, or anyhow a flirtery, is on the cards.

“It’s the story of a girl who is searching… searching… SEARCHING!” as Jerry Lewis will say in HOLLYWOOD OR BUST. Can Charlie help? HE WOULD BE DELIGHTED!

Scanning the area for whatever MacGuffin Cecile is hunting, Charlie’s eyes alight on her bottom as she bends to examine the lawn. A quick display of beaming innocence is produced when she catches him at it.

Charlie prowls after Cecile, leaving the snoozing Phyllis. It’s a little strange that he’s dressed as a tramp in this one, since his wife is clearly not indigent. Indignant, yes. But Charlie’s costume is now firmly established. It’s taken most of a year.

The plot is now thickened in a startling fashion as Glen Cavender abruptly appears, dragged up as some kind of dagger-wielding Turk in a fez. Cecile is with him, apparently. He stabs Charlie Sniffels in the arse, and that’s that dealt with. Charlie makes his unheard excuses and leaves.

Fleeing the dread Turk, Charlie now discovers Mabel, still waiting alone as Ambrose struggles to crank the stalled automobile, his capacious buttocks thrusting rhythmically upwards in a grotesque parody of the sexual act. Can someone recut Cronenberg’s CRASH, Guy Grand style, so that the characters are watching this on TV?

Chaplin is now composing in depth in a way that greatly enhances the visual interest.

The late John Belushi contrived to meet his wife by hitting her on the arm with an oar. Here, Sniffels, having tidied himself up a bit (a rare moment of near-pathos), thwacks Mabel across the rump with his cane — it’s up to us to decide if it’s deliberate — and then apologises. An introduction is made. Well, it’s one way of doing it.

Picking an imaginary thread from Mabel’s shoulder, Charlie demonstrates how pantomime may be used to further the gentlemanly art of bothering women. And gets a slap in the face. Things are going great.

Charlie inadvertently — it seems — hooks Mabel’s hem and lifts her skirt to expose a shapely ankle. In response to her outrage, he sternly spanks the crook of his cane, a fresh image, startling in its implications.

Mabel is outraged by all this. Charlie keeps trying to get fresh, and gets another slap. His character really is a repulsive little sex pest at this point. Ambrose has given up trying to crank that jalopy and comes to defend his wife’s honour. Except he’s too busy “getting acquainted” with Charlie — a new friend! — to listen to his wife’s complaints. So he leaves them together and returns to his solo cranking activities, a contented cuckold. He gets the car going and is offered a lift, leaving Mabel with the creepy little guy in the derby. This is getting kind of distressing.

Edgar Kennedy gets a laugh! Mabel called “Help!” and Edgar the brushy-moustached kop BOUNDS into shot. Not her shot — he’s just one shot to the right.

It’s funny because it feels like he’s just been waiting, coiled, in an unseen third shot just to the right of the one he springs into.

Then, defying the Kuleshovian imaginary geography that has us expecting him to cross into Mabel’s frame from screen right, he emerges in the background behind Charlie (more depth staging) so we can have British pantomime “He’s behind you!” poignancy/dramatic irony. Chaplin, the master of suspense.

Mabel now relaxes, encourages Charlie to incriminate himself, as Kennedy hovers menacingly behind him with truncheon erect and wagging. Charlie is overjoyed by Mabel’s new smiling responses. His quaint blandishments have borne sexy fruit. They always yield in the end! Very good slow burn response to the truncheon and then its owner. Kennedy is not only a slow-burner himself, but the cause of slow-burning in others.

They’re off! Konstable Kennedy pursues Charlie like an eager dog, lolloping round the bushes… Charlie indulges in some purely-for-fun buttock-piercing with a pin, even though this gains him nothing. But when a foe presents his backside, you have to either boot it or jab it with something sharp. Them’s the rules.

The chase circles dizzyingly around Mabel, with Charlie pausing to raise his derby — he is, after all, a gentleman, albeit a sleazy one —

This plot needs added astringency, so Ambrose dismounts the jalopy a mere shot away from Phyllis, now awake and back to her knitting. He drops his kerchief at her feet, accidentally. But now this is a tricky situation. Phyllis assumes this was a deliberate act, designed to allow him to check out her ankles. Embarrassing. And so much psychology going on in a plain americain wide shot. These wraiths of 106 years ago are still thinking thoughts and beaming them into our eyeballs as if we were all there, in the shade of a Los Angeles recreation area, two pandemics ago.

Ambrose inexplicably exacerbates his blunder by sitting down next to Phyllis, while a random dog photobombs the cast.

Evading the Kop, Charlie backs into the Turk, who then takes a mis-aimed blow to the fez from Kennedy’s truncheon.

All men are sexual nuisances, part 2: Mack is now pinching Phyllis’s cheek and capering on in nonconsensual fashion. The difference between Phyllis and Mabel is that when Phyllis hauls off and slaps you, you stay slapped. Now she’s yelling for a cop and Mack is reduced to a pitiful, whining schoolboy begging her not to get him in trouble.

Eyeline trouble. With all these tangled plot threads, it’s not too surprising when Kennedy exits Mack’s frame screen left and then arrives in Phyllis’s frame left, a feat requiring either a single-frame spin by the character or by the viewer’s brain. Still, Phyllis is able to sic Kennedy on Swain, and now both he and Charlie are fugitives from erotic justice.

Ambrose collides with the Turk, who again receives an accidental thwack from Kennedy. It’s called a night stick because it makes you see stars. Kennedy, realising he’s concussed a Turk by mistake, wallops him again on purpose just for being foreign.

Mabel meets Phyllis, and the #MeToo movement is born.

The Charlie blunders upon the scene and, after some more suspense, is presented to Phyliis’s new bosom buddy. Shock! Charlie goes weak at the knees. Then, luckily for him, some footage goes missing and when we rejoin the scene, Phyllis has been abstracted by Melesian jump-cut. Charlie runs off, and Mabel is alone at last.

Kennedy is still chasing Ambrose and thumping the poor Turk, if that’s what he is. Charlie has rejoined his wife and inexplicably (and disappointingly) escaped dismemberment at her hands. But now Kennedy has located Charlie. More dramatic irony type panto suspense — Chaplin’s favourite device here, along with the in-depth framing he’s discovered.

The runing about is getting repetitive but when Mabel introduces Ambrose to Phyllis, reprising the earlier meet-uncute that got Charlie in hot water, the device works nicely, building on our anticipation. And hopefully there won’t be any lost frames this time so we’ll see what happens. Not than much, actually. And we’re back to running and cowering in bushes. It’s looking like Mabel might go off with the big woman, as she just had in TILLIE’S PUCTURED ROMANCE, for sapphic consolation. Will Charlie and Ambrose do likewise? But first, Kennedy’s kosh at last finds its mark, clobbering each cranium, and the creeps are collared.

But before the can be konfined in klink, their wronged women plead piteously on their behalf. Kennedy is confused by the discovery that the woman molested by masher #1 is married to masher #2 who is married to the woman molested by masher #1. His brain is going in circles. He storms off to beat the shit out of Henry McCoy, who was there at the start as leading man in Chaplin’s MAKING A LIVING and is here again, bothering another lovely in another part of the park. THWACK! Ouch!

Realizing their lucky escape, the foursome congratulate one another (?) and the thing more of less stops. An above-average park romp that does show Chaplin developing some new visual ideas.

Thoroughly Unmodern Tillie

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2021 by dcairns

TILLIE’s PUNCTURED ROMANCE (1914) isn’t highly rated — but we should give Sennett some credit for jumping into the feature film racket with both flapshod feet, even when he could have had little idea of what a feature comedy would be like (nobody had made one).

There’s also something poetically apt about Sennett co-directing with Charles Bennett (not the writer of THE 39 STEPS, no — but the guy who sings “Oh, Mr. Kane” in CITIZEN KANE, yes). I want more rhyming co-directors. Christopher Nolan & Xavier Dolan? Michael Mann & Ahn Hung Tran? Susanne Bier & Lars Von Trier? Suggest more!

I’m devoting three posts to this as it’s a six-reeler I guess and certainly thrice the length of any previous Chaplin.

And it starts very nicely, with imported star Marie Dressler emerging from stage curtains to smile shyly at the (imagined) audience, then dissolving into her movie character — and then another dissolve transports that character into her natural habitat. This seems to me better than anything in De Mille’s THE SQUAW MAN, sometimes considered the first feature film, but in reality only the first extant one.

Enter Mack Swain in a big rustic beard, to give Tillie/Marie the traditional Keystone kick up the arse. Welcome to the studio. Sennett tried to cover his costs by shoehorning every comedian in his stable into this movie, which is how Chaplin comes to make his inauspicious feature debut.

And is that Teddy the Keystone Dog ambling through lower frame? Apparently not, though he does seem to have been around pictures at the time. I tell you what, let’s start an unfounded rumour that it’s him.

Enter Chaplin, as “the stranger,” a kind of man with no name I guess, in a straw hat. Always interesting to see him as a villain, and he does it very well. This is his last baddie until Hynkel and Verdoux, I guess. He enters, back to camera, and we stay on that back a loooong time. Keystone has finally discovered preparation and suspense — well, they had to, a feature film made at the pace of a typical Sennett one-reeler would have required a huge budget.

Okay, it’s definitely not Teddy. we could christen him Freddy the Keystone Other Dog

Tillie is playing “catch-the-brick” with Not-Teddy, and accidentally hits the stranger in the nose with her lobbed bit of masonry. Very good pratfall from CC, and it all makes for a very Keystone meet cute. Less than three minutes in and two of their signature moves have been displayed. How long until a pastry is flung?

Charlie aggressively woos Tillie. Wonderful to see Dressler moving about so nimbly in head-to-toe wide shot. And the physical contrast is lovely, with Chaplin like a mosquito thinking of alighting on a tempting jelly.

Charlie and Swain have a drink and everything goes out of focus (nitrate decomposition).

People seem to communicate not by intertitles, but by kicking one another up the arse. I wonder how much nuance they can put into it / get out of it? Dressler’s facial expressions seem to suggest quite a bit. Without the use of her fantastic voice, though, she’s reduced to mainly being a gurner. And the fact that everyone tends to pitch their performances at the camera instead of at one another is a bit tiring. Chaplin was right to limit that to himself as actor, and to use it for audience rapport, not to telegraph things we might have missed. Expositional camera-directed pantomime is the worst.

Charlie’s “look” is yet another fascinating variation. He has a tiny moustache, but a DIFFERENT tiny moustache. Not a toothbrush. There doesn’t seem to be a name for this style or breed. It’s a bit like Max Linder’s chevron-style , but it’s in two pieces. Which is weird. Did it influence Cantinflas and his repulsive face-fungus? But the Spaniard’s two segments have grown further estranged, leaving his philtrum and most of his upper lip area bare, a gaping no-man’s land, while the hairs cluster together like herd animals at the corners of the mouth as if drawing sustenance from stray saliva.

The baggy pants and cane are still there. Chaplin has worked out that his brand definition is beneficial to him, but he needs to delineate between the Little Fellow and this little creep.

Speaking as we were of whiskering, I like that Mack Swain has a portrait of Lincoln on his wall, evidently the inspiration for his unsightly “Irish” beard.

Charlie sets about wooing the hefty hayseed for her father’s loot. This is good material for him, though hardly the kind of thing he’d get up to in his regular characterisation, partially-formed as it yet was. Dressler gets to have fun acting girlish, and would presumably have appealed to John Waters: “I like fat people who don’t know they’re fat.” She’s very graceful, but can drop it in an instant and stagger with pachyderm ponderousness: one thinks of her breaking stride at the end of DINNER AT EIGHT.

This film is usually dismissed, but I have to say, they’ve correctly worked out that the way to make a Keystone feature is to linger on character interplay in simple scenes, not to pack the screen with the usual busy-busy fussing or frenetic action. Cheaper, as well as less exhausting!

The lovers woo by slinging roses at one another. Tillie can hurl a blossom hard enough to knock Charlie on his ass. Of course, it’s not long before bricks are being tossed: this being the countryside, there are plenty lying about (it’s Keystone country).

Charlie proposes an elopement, and it’s a crystal-clear bit of mime, aided by Marie’s shocked, awestruck, delighted responses. His proposal that they rob her father requires a bit more explicit for-our-benefit gesticulation, but plays OK.

Dressler dresses up to elope, donning an extraordinary hat which seems to have a miniature egret or something posing atop it. I can imagine such a garment appealing to Bjork but few others. Anyway, get used to it, she doesn’t get another costume change for ages.

Enter Mabel Normand, forearms immersed in an almighty muff (elbow-deep in animal as they were, women of the era could have taken to veterinary practice as to the manner born), as THE GIRL HE LEFT BEHIND HIM. We’re in Part Two now, and the plot, a thin gruel thus far, duly thickens. Mabel advances into a gaping, PIG ALLEY close-up. Either Mack Sennett or Charles Bennett, has been looking at Griffith (with whom Sennett used to work). It’s rumoured that Sennett decided to throw everything into TILLIE’S after learning that DWG was at work on what became BIRTH OF A NATION, but Hobart Bosworth’s THE SEA WOLF and Cecil B. DeMille & Oscar Apfel’s THE SQUAW MAN were already out there, making money, so that influence is not needed.

The mini-skirmish with Mabel in the street is just padding, though, since the trio face off again in a restaurant, another of those bustling, hyperactive scenes Sennett had a weakness for. Interesting to see Mabel as a villainess.

Tillie gets drunk (falls down a fair bit), Charlie steals her ill-gotten dowry and absconds with Mabel. A woman walks by in the background grinning right into the lens, but if the stars can do it, why not random Los Angeles citizens?

Tillie is ousted and rousted, into the waiting arms of a kop, while Charlie and Mabel laugh wickedly from a presumably adjoining shot. (Keystone movies are very Kuleshovic, since near everything’s a master shot and when you have two wide shots joined together by glances or shoved characters passing from one frame to the other, you never ever get a wider view that links the two frames explicitly.)

Mercifully, Tillie is having too good a time being drunk for the first time to notice that she’s been robbed, abandoned and arrested. The local kop shop is just a palace of drunken hilarity to her. So they put her in solitary confinement with five men and two other women.

Charlie and Mabel go shopping — he is floored by the department store’s swing door. Hinges! There’s just no combatting them.

In the jail cell, Tillie is assailed by varied print formats — things keep blazing into high-contrast glare, with curved corners flashing momentarily onto the frame, a bit of Lynchian strangeness that prepares us for the possibility of Marie Dressler inexplicably mutating in her cell into Balthasar Getty. Which wouldn’t be that much weirder than what’s gone before.

Further developments introduce Phyllis Allen, Keystone’s own Marie Dressler type, as a prison matron (though Tillie isn’t in prison yet, just in the hoosegow’s lock-up) and co-director Charles Bennett himself as Tillie’s rich uncle. Also Edgar Kennedy as his butler. Having a rich uncle duly gets Tillie released, and a good thing too as she’s now entered the lachrymose phase of inebriation, weeping and kissing the desk sergeant’s bald head. “You th’ bess pal in th’world, thass wha’ you are…”

Mabel and Charlie emerge from the clothing store, all gussied up. Mabel is now the full Theda Bara. Charlie no longer had the baggy pants, his divorce from the Little Fellow is complete. (But we can’t see his feet!) This movie is like his entire progress at Keystone played in reverse. Mabel and Charlie have a ton of fun just standing in the street interacting. Makes me wish we could have seen them actually clothes shopping.

Admittedly, Tillie’s weird pyjama-dress-pantsuit thing is pretty impressive too. She’s still having tipsy fun, roughhousing with the Kops, making a great play of jumping off one of those huge kerbs they had in them days. I guess having a massive step like that would actually potentially deflect a cartwheel coming at you sideways, so they probably saved a lot of lives. If you were on the sidewalk you were kind of safe, unlike now. On the other hand, the pedestrians must’ve been walking about on broken ankles alla time.

That’s End of Part 2 —

TO BE CONTINUED